A court's jurisdiction, tells us what kinds of cases
or arguments that court may consider and possibly rule upon. Jurisdiction can also denote a geograhic area, such as, a city, county, state, or the nation as a whole.
Generally, the jurisdiction of our federal courts is limited to the
territorial boundaries of the United States.
In relation to gaining an understanding of the Constituion we want to know what the constitution says about the legal
jurisdiction of the court.
At the same time we must consider that the Constitutional history of our Republic illustrates the tensions that exist between our three branches of government. In those early heady days the Congress was clearly the most dymanic branch, Presidents exercise awesome powers in times of war and major economic crises and attention is fixed on the executive branch. The judicial branch from time to time assumes the ascendant position. Some have suggested that the Court strength is inversely related to that of the Executive, that is, the Court is strong when there is a weak president, and weak when presidents such as Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy and FDR are on the scene.
The constitution states:
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public
Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the
Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.
In all the other Cases, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law
and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall
Therefore, the Constitution describes two
distinct types of jurisdiction: original and appellate.
Original jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases that would originate in
the Supreme Court. They would not start
in a lower court first. As you can see from the constitution, there are only a
couple of conditions mentioned for these type of cases, namely when a state is a
party and involving a foreign ambassador or minister. If we were
to describe original jurisdiction in case terms they would involve three main types:
1. a case between the federal government and a state 2. a case between two or more states 3. a case broughtn by one state against a citizen of another state 4. a case involving an ambassador, foreign minister, or consul - which almost never come to the court because of the concept of diplomatic immunity.
The Supreme Court asked Congress and received permission to start many of the original jurisdiction cases in lower courts where there are better procedures for fact finding. Nonetheless, the court does on occasion involve itself in fact finding, but does so by appointing a - master - an expert working under the courts power to create a fact record for the Court to consider. There are few - original jurisdiction - cases that come before the court, usually a couple of cases a year (out of 5000-7000 requests), sometimes none at all.
Much more important to the Supreme Court is its appellate jurisdiction. Appellate cases fall into two broad categories:
1. cases on appeal from a lower federal court. Therefore positioning the Supreme Court aas a top court within the federal court system. 2. cases which come before the court from the 'highest' state court when it involves an important federal question
a case on appeal from the lower federal courts. In this regard the Supreme Court operates as the top court in the federal system.
a case from the "highest" state court when a substantial federal question is involved.
As to the second condition, not all cases can be appealed to the US Supreme Court, only those that have exhausted their appeals in the state and that contain a substantial 'federal' question. In practice, however the Supreme Court can usually find a way or a basis for reviewing a case if they want to.
Nevertheless, in this regard. the Supreme Courts has been quite restrained (Bush v. Gore is an exception) in interfering in what are normally regarded as state court business.
Does the Constitution allow Congress to limit the kinds of cases the court may hear on appeal? - that is to say are the words 'In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make' to be interpreted literally. In other words was this clause meant to assert that Congress alone shall decide what cases the court may review.
And, thus we introduce the element of judicial philosphy, or how is the Constitution to be interpreted.
Original jurisdiction is the power of the Supreme Court to hear a case for the first time, as opposed to appellate jurisdiction, when a court has the power to review a lower court's decision. Congress can create lower courts and an appeals process. Congress enacts law defining crimes and providing for punishment.
Article III also protects the right to trial by jury in all criminal cases, and defines the crime of treason.